This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
If you were an 80s kid, reading the words “Monkey Magic” will probably work like a trigger code to a sleeper agent. You may find you’re belting out a strange disco-pop tune, perhaps also high-kicking the air and throwing kung fu shapes…
Monkey Magic was, of course, the aggressively catchy theme song to Monkey, a Japanese TV show that introduced a whole generation of western kids to the joys of martial arts. If you were too young for Bruce Lee, the Shaw Brothers or ninjas, Monkey was a gateway drug and ill-advised impersonsations were a mainstay of school playgrounds. The BBC’s wacky English dub gave it further kid appeal but the bright colors, esoteric themes and fast-paced supernatural duffings-up made it unlike anything else on kids’ TV at the time. Although filmed between 1978 and 1980, repeats aired for about fifteen years in the UK and even longer in Australia. With this enduring impact on impressionable young minds, it’s perhaps no surprise that The New Legends Of Monkey – Netflix’s 2018 reboot – is an Aussie co-production.
[Note: If you don’t know anything about Monkey but would like to, it might be worth watching the first three episodes of the new show before reading this as – while I won’t spoil anything beyond the synopsis – there are some really nicely setup surprises if you’re not already familiar with the characters!]
The original Monkey was loosely based on the much-adapted 16th century Chinese novel Journey To The West which, in turn, was loosely based on the pilgrimage of 7th century Buddhist monk Xuanzang. Doesn’t sound like obvious source material for a kids’ show but Monkey, like I say, was different. Its main character, Tripitaka the monk, finds himself tasked with retrieving some sacred scrolls from India. En route, he meets trio of madcap gods – Monkey, Sandy and Pigsy – who come along for the ride and whose mayhem has to be kept in check. Each week, Buddhist concepts and crucial life lessons would be taught while various demons, bandits and sorcerers had their asses handed to them.
The New Legends Of Monkey, while taking inspiration from the TV show more than any other version of the novel, shifts things around a bit. Instead of setting itself in ancient China, it creates a multi-racial fantasy world from a made-up age where demons rule the land. The oppressed humans live a drudgerous existence, but one nameless orphan girl (Luciane Buchanan) holds hope for the future. She’s been raised by a great scholar who believes that the Monkey King is imprisoned in stone and can be freed if his golden crown is returned to him. Once released, Monkey can retrieve the sacred scrolls that will vanquish the demons.
However, when a monk who has been given the sacred name of Tripitaka arrives at The Scholar’s house, assigned to find Monkey’s prison, it all goes quickly and violently wrong. The Scholar and Tripitaka are killed by a demon and the nameless girl flees into the night, inadvertantly stumbling upon Monkey’s stone prison herself. Lacking in confidence but in possession of the golden crown, she pretends *she* is Tripitaka and that it’s her mission to escort him west to the sacred scrolls, thus kicking off the adventure (and playing cheeky homage to the fact that original Tripitaka was a male character played by a woman)…
I’m going to lay my cards on the table here and say it. I *LOVED* New Legends Of Monkey. It’s neither as psychotronic nor as deep as the original but it is flat-out great entertainment with its heart in the right place, an eccentric streak of humor and some cracking action. The four main cast members are fantastic. Luciane Buchanan sells the new Tripitaka’s wide-eyed sincerity from the start and provides an anchor for the craziness of the gods.
Chai Hansen is hysterical as Monkey, playing it for the most part like an arrogant schoolboy stuck in the body of a comic book beefcake, but he also hits all the right emotional beats when things call for it. The gender-swapped Sandy is at risk of being a Manic Pixie Dream God but Emilie Cocquerel keeps it just the right side of Helena Bonham Carter without ever going full Paloma Faith and proves irresistible.
Arguably though, the showstealer is Kiwi comedian Josh Thomson as Pigsy. He has the toughest brief, playing a weak-willed Pig God with a magic rake, but brings pathos, sensitivity and impeccable comic timing to the role.
The whole thing has a nostalgic vibe to it but not necessarily just for the original Monkey. It shares a kindred spirit with a lot of 80s family adventure shows. This kind of all-ages light entertainment fantasy has taken a bit of a break from TV in recent years, so it’s nice to see it back again and done so well. For the most part, the show looks lush (there’s a bit of ropey CGI but anyone used to the original Monkey will be no stranger to ropiness) and the production design brings the new world to vivid life. Of course the aesthetic is influenced by ancient China but the playful anachronisms and off-kilter quirks give it distance. There’s also a super-cool soundtrack that borders on synthwave and, again, separates the new show’s identity from the original. That said, despite all the changes, what runs through New Legends – and is key to its success – is a genuine love for its source. The creators have clearly eaten, slept and breathed Monkey.
Although there’s an argument (and one made in recent online controversies) that New Legends appropriates Chinese culture by adapting Journey To The West without casting any actual Chinese actors, it is worth noting that the original Monkey was a Japanese production, starring Japanese actors. The cast of New Legends is an admirably diverse one and – while I’m by no means trying to invalidate anyone’s argument against it – I found it quite joyful to see the original Journey further mutated into a new multi-cultural world and I think this is true to the spirit of the piece. It’s a story that’s been handed down through many generations and travelled a long way already, adapted into all kinds of formats from Korean TV dramas to Damon Albarn-penned operas. The original Monkey brought both Chinese classicism and Japanese pop culture into the minds of British and Australian kids and, rather than exploiting that, I felt New Legends pays respect to it – it pays forward its influences, if you like. I enjoy that a story written many centuries ago can still resonate, can cross different cultures and set new imaginations alight.
If I have a complaint, it’s that it does go off the boil slightly when the ‘big’ bad guy is revealed. The season reaches a satisfying end but the mega-baddie is just a bit an anti-climax compared with, say, the rad Elric demons or the spider-faced ninjas the heroes square off against earlier on. Still even taking that into account, New Legends Of Monkey is wonderful, strange entertainment that any lover of classic fantasy action will get a kick out of. It has big laughs, bigger imagination, positive messages and a sense of playful Monkey mischief that’s nice to see on TV again. It warmed my heart and, at only five hours, it’s an easy one to just gulp down in one sitting, classic Pigsy-style. Rumors that I’ve been high kicking, throwing kung fu shapes and belting out Monkey Magic since watching it can neither be confirmed nor denied…
The New Legends Of Monkey is available to stream on Netflix now.